R. Crumb's Book of Genesis Illustrated is now out, and my review is up at Religion Dispatches, in a dual review with the Wolverton Bible.
There is nothing sacred to underground and alternative comics creators. Irreverence has been a defining characteristic of the movement since the 1960s, when creators like R. Crumb and Gilbert Shelton began using the words-and-pictures medium to create scathing, sex-and-drug-filled satires of square culture. No subject was safe from the savage pens of these cartoonists, and religion—or, more specifically, sanctimoniousness—was a common target... [However,] far from the sharp satire that one might expect from the creator of Fritz the Cat and Mr. Natural, Genesis is a remarkably straight, even reverent, adaptation.
Many of the most intriguing images in [Basil Wolverton's Old Testament illustrations] feature outlandish pagan idols depicted with a sense of joy and whimsy that suggest Wolverton's delight in the more outré aspects of scripture. A more gruesomely playful example is a terrifying image of the blinding of Samson: given the demonizing of the "injury to the eye motif" in Frederic Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent and the Senate hearings on violent comics that it produced, one wonders if this image wasn't a sly comment on the broader cultural meaning of violent art.
The uninformed backlash to Crumb's opus has already begun. The Wall Street Journal quotes a spokesperson for the Church of England's declaration: "I haven’t seen the book but I think trying to sell something by emphasizing the sexual nature of some of the scenes doesn’t seem to be a good way to pass on the message of the Bible." Haven't seen the book, indeed-- Crumb, surprisingly, doesn't emphasize the sex in Genesis; but neither does he Bowdlerize it. This I-don't-know-what-it-is-but-I-don't-like-it kind of reaction is more than a little reminiscent of the demonization of The Last Temptation of Christ. Both that film and the book on which it was based carry a powerful-- and orthodox!-- Christological message, but that didn't stop protestors who had never seen the movie from ddeclaring it offensive. Some Christian conservatives have backpedaled on Last Temptation (after, y'know, actually watching it), so perhaps Crumb's Genesis will gain some acceptance in twenty years or so...
Read my full review, and see a few pictures from the books, here.